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Hot Button: Player Characters Should Never Be Killed

Posted By Martin Ralya On July 12, 2010 @ 1:27 am In Hot Buttons | 51 Comments

Reading a fascinating Guild Wars 2 design diary about character death penalties (via Penny Arcade) got me thinking about PC deaths in RPGs — and specifically, about why PCs should ever be killed at all.

For your consideration:

Dying? Yawn

In the vast majority of traditional-style campaigns, regardless of the game, PCs almost never die for good. D&D is the main example, and also the source of why this stereotype tends to be true: Most gamers have played D&D, and from that experience have taken away the concept of PC death being an inconvenience at best.

Fuck You, Players

Dying, even temporarily, generally means that the PC’s player is taken out of the action, so the penalty for PC death is applied to the player, and the penalty is not getting to have fun until their PC is brought back from the dead.

No Really, Fuck You, Players

When PC death is permanent, whether due to play style or your RPG/setting of choice, it can be a huge blow to the player who’s impacted. Why should this happen as a result of what’s supposed to be a leisure activity?

Delicious Fudge

Keeping PCs alive is the biggest reason most GMs fudge die rolls, and we all know where any discussion of fudging leads: MADNESS. This contentious issue can be sidestepped by removing the source of the problem, fudging to keep PCs alive.

We Do This Why, Again?

If PC death is a) infrequent, b) penalizes players, c) can emotionally impact players, d) often avoided by GMs, and e) generally just an inconvenience, why should it ever happen without the affected player’s consent?

Universal Doesn’t Meant Good

PC death is a near-universal consequence of bad luck and/or bad decision-making that’s included in the vast majority of RPGs whether it really needs to be there or not, much like PC stats/attributes. By way of comparison, it’s nearly universally excluded from the vast majority of movies, TV shows, book series, and narrative-driven entertainment in general.

You know Frodo will succeed in getting the One Ring to Mount Doom. You know Jack Bauer will save the day in the nick of time. You know Luke Skywalker will defeat Darth Vader. You watch and read their stories because they’re good stories, and because seeing how they pull things off is part of the fun — even though the conclusion is essentially foregone, and not really the heart of the matter.

So: PCs should never be killed. Problem(s) solved.

This is an extreme position, and it’s worth noting that it’s not my personal stand or take on the matter — but my interest in it, and in the issues underlying it, is genuine and goes back at least four years: …And Then James Bond Spends a Month in the Hospital.

I’ve wrestled with it myself, I’ve pondered it during and after games as both a GM and a player, and it still fascinates me. I’m not really sure whether it’s right, wrong, needs work, or what.

So here’s one end of the spectrum in black and white: Take PC death off the table, explicitly and permanently, and everyone will have more fun at the gaming table.

Let’s put the biggest argument against this concept right out front: Games without PC death are for…

Glad we cleared that up.

Is that wrong? Right? Crazysauce? Let’s talk.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




51 Comments (Open | Close)

51 Comments To "Hot Button: Player Characters Should Never Be Killed"

#1 Comment By Rob Lang On July 12, 2010 @ 3:51 am

I rarely kill player characters, they normally sacrifice themselves for the common good. Or the player wants a new character, then we agree on some sort of enjoyable-for-all butchering. Generally speaking, the risk of death is normally on a team-wide basis. When it goes wrong, it goes REALLY wrong. Then it is campaign over!

#2 Comment By Malty On July 12, 2010 @ 4:14 am

I find the new Dresden Files RPG to solve this quite elegant within the actual rules of the game.

First of all, any player is free to surrender in a combat, as long as it’s not in the middle of an attack roll that would otherwise kill them. When doing so, the player is allowed to dictate the actual consequence of defeat (the GM must still approve, but it is quite clearly the spirit of the rules that death will not happen in this case unless the player herself asks for it).

Secondly, if it actually happens that the player is taken out by an attack, and the GM absolutely positively wants it to mean death (he should have made this clear during the combat), then the player is said to own the death scene, and can make sure their death is in some way meaningful.

Not in anyway revolutionary or one-of-a-kind, but by being in the actual rules, it makes sure random player deaths can easily (barring the most extreme cases of unlucky rolls) be avoided unless you don’t pay attention. At all.

#3 Comment By theEmrys On July 12, 2010 @ 5:48 am

Well, I realize that my style might be in the minority here, but PC death plays a big (good) role at my table. Now I run HackMaster, which might explain it right there… :) But seriously, I think PC deaths add something to our game.

Now, I’ve been playing various games for 27 years and I think I had a PC die (for good) in my group for the first time about 3 years ago… so I’m not a “killer DM”.

I think it really matters on the style of game you’re playing. In our case it’s a game which can be very deadly (for PCs and monsters) and tactics can make a big difference. Still, luck plays a part and sometimes you’re just unlucky. Also, the game we play is about “average joes” who work to BECOME heroes… you don’t already start as one. That’s a big difference than a lot of other games out there. For us, part of the fun is “earning” the right to be heroes, and we find that much sweeter when there is a real risk of consequences. Now, yes, there are other ways you can do that, but this one works for us.

Now, I’m the first to admit that different games and different styles work and play differently, and never killing a character might be appropriate for some of those… but not the way we play. Without the risk of death in a setting with limited or no ability to bring someone back, it would cheapen the victories they’ve achieved.

#4 Comment By Spitfire665 On July 12, 2010 @ 6:30 am

@theEmrys
I’m 100% with the Emrys here. It depends on the style of play and the group. But in my own personal taste for it, if there’s no chance I can lose, it’s like playing a video game with cheat codes. There’s no challenge. Sure, you get all the best L00tz and you win the day, but with no threat, it’s cheap and meaningless.

Even Superman died.

#5 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On July 12, 2010 @ 7:35 am

You did leave out one very important reason — realism. In real life as well as in many (if not most) stories, people who go off to fight dangerous creatures and face hostile environmental challenges often die. Whether that is a meaningful consideration is its own question.

#6 Comment By dizman On July 12, 2010 @ 7:36 am

Well i rearly get to kill my players cause all are extremely lucky in key point situations. But killing them adds drama and is a good thing to do on low levels cause they can still change the character idea and concept. As soon as they become mid levels its harder cause in my exp players sometimes get emotionally attached to their characters so killing them at this point permamently is almost out of the question(as an idea dice rule all). But expecialy dnd allow players to raise them selves from dead. So kill or not to kill… Killing is sometimes nececery to keep the exsitment, but i rerly resort to it cause to good gm “kill – no kill” meens nothing and everyone knows what suits his gaming sesions best. For short adventures kill them, for long term campaigns keep it to a minimum :D

#7 Comment By Knight of Roses On July 12, 2010 @ 7:48 am

Generally agreed. We are here to have fun and having your character killed and not being able to play is not fun.

That being said, I killed a character in my L5R campaign not that long ago. But L5R is an exceedingly deadly game and the character went out heroicly fighting a major supernatural evil. L5R needs that threat of death to work as a setting and the players understood that going in.

In most cases, I will give the player a choice of letting their character get killed or suffer some serious in-game penalty when they recover from the ‘near-fatal’ blow. This has worked well in the past.

#8 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On July 12, 2010 @ 8:14 am

I like systems where “death” is just permanent (or temporary) stat damage. Thus, when the away team beams down to the planet and the red shirt gets killed, that means Kirk lost a challenge and took damage in his minions stat.

#9 Comment By callin On July 12, 2010 @ 8:50 am

I’ve always had a problem with the realism argument. Is it realistic to survive being shot, stabbed, falling 50 feet? No, and yet that happens all the time in RPGs (and movies, etc). RPGs are not about realism. RPGs are an escape from realism. I’ve spent 2 hours creatng a character only to have him die in 20 minutes. Fun? No.
All that being said I have and will kill off characters. If there is no threat of death then there is no reason to include combat as a feature of a game. And threat of death does not truly exist unless someone dies occasionally.
As already mentioned it all depends on the your players and the campaign style you are running for that particular game.
Right now I am running 2 4E campaigns. One is heavily character dependent. It would take alot for a character to die, and if one does I have contingencies in place to allow them to come back in one form or another.
My 2nd campaign is a sandbox and death could be around any corner. The players were told death could happen alot before the campaign even started.
Different campaign, different approach to death of characters.

#10 Comment By jbristow On July 12, 2010 @ 9:08 am

I think it’s fine to not kill PCs. However, by taking death off the table, I find it hard to really challenge the players at the table. If the game doesn’t include “disadvantages”, death is a good last-resort challenge to work to avoid.

#11 Comment By Eric Wilde On July 12, 2010 @ 9:23 am

theEmrys had it right. It depends on the style of the game and group.

I’ve played Narrative-style games where death was only “allowed” if it furthered the story. In this case the use of strategy or tactics were also to further the story. The strategy of the PCs was not an integral part of the gaming experience.

I’ve played Gamist-style games in both ways. In some cases PC death would take the player out of the fun and so was avoided. In some cases PC death meant that those who survived were that much more special.

I’m playing a Simulationst-style game right now where death is very much a part of the game. In games like Pendragon (extremely highly recommended!), death is an integral part of the game because the players are really playing a dynasty rather than a single individual. We go so far as to have a plan for how to respond to character death for each player before we start a session. Last session even one of the backup characters went down.

#12 Comment By Eric Wilde On July 12, 2010 @ 9:24 am

I should add that in low magic worlds, if a campaign stretches over a long period of time it is bloody well impossible not to have most every PC die if just of old age.

#13 Comment By theEmrys On July 12, 2010 @ 9:30 am

I’ll also add that I really like the way HackMaster 4e added in Protégées. The concept was that after you got to second level you could take on a protégée who was an NPC but basically a lower level character who you can funnel experience to… either by having them join you on an adventure, or relate what you learned to them after the fact (transfering a small percentage of experience earned to them). By doing this, you’re able to keep them a level or more behind you and they’re a “backup” character for you.. often inheriting your stuff if you die. This stops you from having to restart at level 1 if you character dies, and also has the advantage of having that character ready to go if you drop. In the case of a TPK (when the protégées are not with you) their first adventure could be to recover the bodies of their mentors.

I expect this will be part of Advanced HM as well in the new edition, but find that the concept translates well to other games as well. Keeps a penalty for death but allows the legacy to live on.

#14 Comment By ChrowX On July 12, 2010 @ 10:03 am

I feel like every time i comment, I bring up this story, because it was my first big outing as a DM and it ended pretty badly, though it is still going and getting much better than it ever was before.

I ran a Changeling game where one player decided to play a low clarity Pirate who just wanted to start fights and loot and get all the money he wanted. At the time, I had imagined the character being somewhat different than he turned out and it was really a matter of miscommunication, but in the end the character was a pain int he ass to deal with.

Long story short, he starts enough crap for someone to call the police on him, and that lead him to kill two Police officers in broad daylight. The leads to him getting hunted down and shot to death. In either case there was a chance for him to surrender and not take his sword to their throats, but this was a choice he consciously made.

Mind you, this is a game where combat can be entirely optional. In these kinds of settings players should have some sort of understanding that by getting into a fight, they always run the risk of their character dying or getting seriously f*** over. Taking Death off the table means that you are essentially giving players free reign to do whatever they want and once they realize that, it turns into a Players vs. GM conflict, and that’s the worst kind of game to play when all you want to do is tell a story.

Now, if this were a tight-knit team oriented dungeon crawling kind of game where every party member is needed for them to carry on, I couldn’t see myself letting Player characters die so easily and it might even lead me to fudge a roll or two. However, I would also expect my players to act with a bit of common sense and known not to go kicking the proverbial hornets nest.

#15 Comment By albertcarruthers On July 12, 2010 @ 10:28 am

I’m absolutely with you on this one. My heart was crushed in an earlier run of Beyond the Mountains of Madness where my character was killed by a bullet from a German, just because he had gone out brawling the night before and received a few points of damage from a punch.

I was loving his personality and style, which worked wonderfully with the other characters… and I never got the chance to take him out of NY. Shame, shame.

#16 Comment By clem On July 12, 2010 @ 10:38 am

I kill characters very rarely. I will do so 1)if the player wants to retire the character in that manner 2)in climactic situations that cap a major story arc, in which case the players know going in that i am being strict and merciless and the characters could very well die. On the other hand, i often stick the characters in untenable seeming situations where i myself have no designed scenario where they survive, let alone triumph, and i count on player ingenuity to find a way to come out more or less intact. The players, of course, know this so they know that they are relying on their own wits, not the plot, to survive. In other cases, the deadly spell, for example, turns the victim to stone or transports the victim to some horrible place or otherwise takes tie victim temporarily out of the group. The player, however, is allowed to kibitz and make suggestions to the remaining members as the try to survive and rescue the lost one.

#17 Comment By zacharythefirst On July 12, 2010 @ 10:40 am

Certainly there are other methods of creating risk without resorting to dying; I truly get that. But without the idea of that final spectre hanging over players, I find that the true impact of risk and daring are blunted.

The greater the risk, the greater the glory. And without the threat of death, there’s one level of risk that remains unexplored. Wealth can be restored, life can continue without loved ones. Wounds heal. A stunt performed with a safety net is not as exciting as one performed without. It all depends on what level you view risk and reward. If a fighter knows the worst that will happen to him is that he’s captured or loses his sword or loses his kingdom, where’s the suspense in diving into a pile of 12 well-armed foes?

For the life of me, I would not trade that moment when a player’s life depends on an improbable roll of the dice. How much heightened is the reward when the danger is that much more dire?

That’s not to say you should run your game like a killbot factory. If characters die at the drop of a hat, then I think it cheapens death as well. As with so many things in our hobby, I think the answer is a well-considered compromise between two extremes.

YMMV, of course. That’s just my opinion. Others may still get that sense of true risk without resorting to death, and I have no issue with that. It just isn’t my style. This is definitely a style issue; that’s just mine.

Great topic, great discussion!

#18 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On July 12, 2010 @ 11:20 am

callin: There is a big difference between realism-in-detail and big-picture realism. Dangerous stuff “should” be dangerous. Yes, it can be bad for the game for other reasons, but at a certain point it just gets ridiculous.

Note: These days I don’t DM, and my DM plays “death is permanent, roll a new character”. I’m not a big proponent of killing characters, but that doesn’t affect my views on the “realism” argument.

#19 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 12, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

Where to begin…

My first instinct is to approach death the way the group wants to handle it. My failure to do this led to an embarrassing three-part self-criticism.

Simply put, reward is sweeter when it involves risk. Character death is the ultimate risk (in gaming).

Maim them. ‘Nuff said.

I do like some of the newer mechanics, such as Dresden Files or others, where the entire table agrees that the stakes are set at “victory or death”. But I’m not sure if that will add to the game or not…

Awesome subject, and gotta love the way you stake out one end of the field.

#20 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 12, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

I am not interested in playing a game where a character cannot die. I’m only slightly interested in a game where a character can die easily because that is “realistic”.

RPGs are advanced story telling. Character death in a story usually takes place at a critical moment, and in the best stories it has dramatic impact.

Now if a player has their character constantly pick fights and cause trouble in the story I as the GM am going to have the appropriate actions taken by the NPCs. Such players usually start their characters down that path early, and as a result their characters never become major parts of the story. The death of the character has less of an impact, because the player wanted a simple two-dimensional trouble starter type character.

But if a player is obviously trying to get involved in the story telling with their character’s actions I’m going to be less likely to have the PC killed in the game at a moment that is not critical and does nto have a major dramatic impact.

Am I using a form of a GM fiat here? Probably. Who cares? It works, and the rules are always the same so it is fair. Yes, some forms of GM fiat are fair. :)

So for me character death comes down to is the PC a major cast member, or is the PC merely a minor character? Players choose through their actions which PCs are the stars of the story and which ones are red shirts. I as the GM merely call it as I see it and act accordingly.

#21 Comment By Nephlm On July 12, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

I’ve been GMing for going on a decade now and I’ve never killed a PC. Call me a big softie, I don’t mind. On the other hand as a player for 20 years I can probably count the number of my characters who died in long running campaigns on one hand.

One aspect the article skipped over is that I have expended no small amount of effort entwining the character’s together building common problems and working the character’s estranged brother into the usurpers plot. That character is deeply embedded in the central story.

Then they take a stray death ray and die. We’re half way through an arc that has it’s origins in a story arc from an old enemy from a year ago and somehow I have to work the new guy in at a drop of a hat. (And what kind of character is going to get involved with that group, they have a list of enemies a mile long.)

So for my own work reduction I don’t like to kill PCs. It also reduces the number of implausible ‘we’ll take that stranger and make him part of our inner circle because he smells like a PC’ scenes.

In my most recent homebrew there is no section on death. There are many rules on being ‘taken out’. If a player thinks this is an appropriate time/place to die we can work to make sure that death has meaning. Also if the table doesn’t think it is credible for the character to have survived they die.

Despite that, my player’s live in fear of the Faerie Lady who sucked a tiny bit of hope from every single American when they gave her the Liberty Bell as a symbol of hope.

The effect of removing death from the table is that it allows me to push them harder without concern that I’ll accidentally kill a PC. I can have harder opponents that push them closer to being taken out. It allows me to have situations where they can absolutely fail and all those consequences without having to make and involve new characters.

In the same breath I want my PC out there taking chances, risking themselves doing cool things rather than turtling in their base of operations afraid to take risks. This happens by not punishing them or their characters by taking risk. Now, the situation may get a bit more complicated….

YMMV of course, but as both a player and a GM I don’t think PC death serves the interests of the kinds of games I tend to play.

#22 Comment By GiacomoArt On July 12, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

As seems to be the consensus here, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer for this question. It’s all about the intended mood of any particular game and the personal tastes of the players. What makes this hobby so cool is that each and every session is a “do-it-yourself” project. The only real distinction between a good game and a bad game is how eager your players are to sit down to the next session after they get up from this one. But I’d like to point a key consideration you passed over in your summary (and which I was just beat to the punch in bringing up): PC death doesn’t just penalize the player, it can be a major penalty to the GM.

To look at it from the direction of the Kirk analogy, yes, it would have been a real bummer for Shatner to see the script where Kirk’s number came up, but Shatner’s feelings were a very minor consideration when it came to his character’s ongoing success. The real influence came from the folks behind the scenes – from the writers right up to the head of the studio – who were invested in keeping the Kirk status quo intact. Killing a lead characters in any popular, ongoing story means overcoming a mountain of inertia. And while it’s true that the inertia in an RPG campaign is nowhere near so mountainous as that of any multi-season TV show, the GM who treats his PCs as anything more than interchangeable pawns is going be planning story arcs (be they short- or long-term, straightforward or intricate) tailored to specifically to them. At best, when one of those PCs dies, he’ll have to adjust fire and adapt the story arc. At worst, every minute of his planning goes out the window. No GM would want to wave goodbye to hours of planning, weeks of anticipation, and several sessions worth of artfully layered foreshadowing just to see the key PC killed by a lucky critical from some random kobold mook, moments before the ironic revelation that our hero’s beloved, long-lost teddy bear has been the evil mastermind behind all his woes. Sure, Mr. Fluffikins could still pound the tar out of the rest of the party for fun, but it lacks the bittersweet oomph of that great final showdown where he either exacts revenge on his former owner or gets that nice apology and heartfelt hug he’s so long overdue.

My personal pet-peeve regarding PC death in RPGs is less about whether it happens, and more about how weighty it is when it does happen. I would rather by far that you tell me up front, “Death is off the table,” than employ the D&D-style trope of easy resurrection. Even back when I was a little power gamer, I loathed the concept. Death is Death. It’s final. That’s what makes it Death. If you’re just going to be Mostly Dead, you were never Dead to begin with. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ll fudge to avoid trivial, meaningless PC deaths so long as the players weren’t tempting fate. Nor am I above re-labeling game mechanics so that when you run out of hit points you’re “mortally wounded”, and a timely resurrection becomes a “back from the brink” spell, or whatever. Just please give Death some dignity and respect if you’re going to bring it to the table, and don’t turn it into some quarter-eating video game.

#23 Comment By Airk On July 12, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

This an interesting read, because while I fundamentally agree with the points of the “pro death” crowd, I find the arguments presented here as…flimsy and weak.

Failure does not have to equal death. In fact, in many cases, failure is WORSE than death. “Life goes on without loved ones?” Sure, but you know, it’s pretty easy to make the case that a broken, bereft, empty shell of a man is MORE pitiable, not less, than one who went down fighting on the end of a spear.

If you -need- to have Death to keep your players from just throwing themselves headlong into peril, then maybe you need to up the emotional stakes a bit.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t happen, but I am saying that it can be a crutch and a cheap way of providing “danger.”

#24 Comment By Roxysteve On July 12, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

The *problem* with death in D&D (at least, 3.5) is that it comes too easily to some characters (a sorcerer character I had a while back died almost every game due to some stupid save-or-die attack that if it had some mitigating method/item, wasn’t available to that class) and when it does, almost no DM plays the letter of the rules on resurrection because of another half-arsed meme: That the party must be made up of characters of the same level.As a player I feel gyped if death comes unavoidably and all-too easily to a given character type – it’s the best way to make sure that combat takes all night since everyone will only play cheesy cross-classed half-elf rogue/druids with a Hand of Glory hung from their necks so they can have three rings on the boil. Great game right there. I also feel that consequence-less death is as pointless as consequence-less anything. I got equally pissed-off when a gimp DM running Conan turned off all the corruption stuff without warning mid-game. What’s the point disadvantaging a character by roleplaying him as wary unto death of corruption if it’s all been hoovered up quietly behind the scenes? What’s the lesson learned by the player if death just means a respawn with no level loss? Assuming there is any lesson beyond “let someone else soak up the save or die attack of course.

As a Call of Cthulhu DM I had become wary of killing characters of late, a reaction to re-reading my game logs from years ago when the death toll was so astronomical that everyone ran three characters. Then I started a D20, Delta Green campaign with the stated aim of going more pulpy than the 1920s BRP campaign. Someone stood his ground when everything in the scene said “run”. He emptied a MAC-10 into the critter, which just pissed it off, and then the critter made *its* attack and the player was diced.

It was cathartic for both of us. He knew he should have run, but wanted to see if the D20 rules changed that assumption. I (re)learned that a dead character isn’t the end of the world.

#25 Comment By Roxysteve On July 12, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

[4 GiacomoArt]

I don’t think death in a High Fantasy campaign is necessarily final, but bringing back the character shouldn’t be trivial and the character brought back ought to have some baggage from being on the Other Side.

You could go all “Pet Sematary” with this, or “Orpheus in the Underworld”, forcing the players to either do something very unsavory or very dangerous and time-consuming to effect the resurrection too. The Order of the Stick had some insights into Life After Death in the D&D world and how it might work. I particularly liked the timeslip.

And if the players have to go into the underworld to find the dead character and persuade him/her to return, have the GM play the spirit character and randomly determine whether they *want* to come back.

As for the character brought back, definitely should suffer some sort of detrimental effect. Hey, the player can always opt to gen a new character instead. I might offer that in D&D 3.5 a resurrected character loses a level as per the rulebook but that a new character can be of the same level as the party (assuming they have a “party level”).

Only a fool would undergo or suggest someone else undergo resurrection in a game of Call of Cthulhu. Best case: you get back a badly effected version of the person in question. Worse possible case: You loose a rampaging Thinge Thatte Shoulde Notte Bee in your friend’s form that will plague everyone until it is put back down again, possibly at great personal cost to life, limb and sanity. Now *that’s* a good game (from the GM side of the screen).

#26 Comment By Roxysteve On July 12, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

@Nephlm – Forgive me for not getting it – I’m notoriously blind to nuance I don’t understand how you can “push the players harder towards being taken out” (my paraphrase) if their being taken out at all is their decision, unless you are playing a storyteller in which case you don’t need a GM at all. The players know you won’t kill them and will only die if they feel like it. Where’s your stick?

Not a critique of a system that is obviously working, just not understanding.

#27 Comment By Sudain On July 12, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

As a player, I’m revolted when the DM removes death the table. It means I can push as many ‘buttons o doom’ as I like and still come out fine. Hilarity will ensue I’m sure; but it means I don’t have to invest or care.

If I’m stupid, let me die. If I’m unlucky, then let me curse my luck. If my friends have to take out a loan or sell some of my gear to to steal me back from death then let them! Just because my character is dead/incapacitated doesn’t mean I can’t be engaged or have fun with my friends.

“Why is the only know how high you take is to fall?”

#28 Comment By evil On July 12, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

@GiacomoArt – I have to disagree with your statement that “If you’re just going to be Mostly Dead, you were never Dead to begin with.” Having been clinically dead multiple times, death isn’t always final. Sometimes they come back.

However, I tend to only use player death in two cases: It’s the final battle with the big boss or when I want death to be a major turning point in the game.

How dangerous is the climactic battle if all of my PCs come through unharmed? Not very. The game becomes even more interesting for my players (I’ve been told) when only one or a few of the characters live to tell the tale. Other times, death is needed to show that something bigger and badder is on the horizon or to show the players the next logical step in the process. I’ve used NPCs for this in the past, but have found that a player death has a much greater impact. Any other time I can avoid real death I do, because it’s a pain in the backside.

#29 Comment By zacharythefirst On July 12, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

@Airk

@Airk: Certainly the losing of a loved one can be a powerful in-game event. Different types of players (and characters!) respond to different types of stimuli. For some, the threat of losing a PC’s loved one with really add tension to the game. For others, only a mortal threat to the PC will do the trick. I’m just presenting one side of it. I think we can all agree it’s a pretty relativistic topic, depending on the type of game and players you run.

For me, I’m not short on ways to introduce danger and drama to the players, but I like having death on the table, all permanent-like. I won’t indiscriminately kill, but for me, it makes true chance and true heroism all that more relevant.

It’s sort of the same reason some people think Superman is boring, yeah? Because, for a long time (until Doomsday), Supes pretty much could not die. Batman, on the other hand, has a much grittier spectre of death. He’s an everyman, mortal. Both characters appeal to different parts of our psychology, but I think the threat of mortality and the everyman feel is one of the big reasons Bats is the cool pick over Supes every time. We want the little guy to face the biggest odds possible, and overcome them.

I’m getting a little far afield here, so I’ll rest on that.

#30 Comment By Scott Martin On July 12, 2010 @ 9:59 pm

I’m firmly on the “it depends on the game” camp. Honestly, I’d rather not have “death” if it just introduces easy resurrection as a consequence.

As Kurt alluded to upthread, there are lots of other horrible consequences that can result. In my wife’s 4e game we went down two sessions ago. She asked us if we wanted to continue with the characters as prisoners of the Orcs, or whether we’d rather make new characters. After some debate, we decided to continue with our characters– we were already growing attached, and who doesn’t want to have a breakout scene.

I like that in PTA, a character should only die in their Scene Presence 3 episode. That feels like good TV– if you fall, it’s the focus of the whole episode. Not because you took the right fork instead of the left.

#31 Pingback By Player Death « Clockwork Meditations On July 12, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

[...] at Gnome Stew is “Player Characters Should Never be Killed.”  (You can check it out here.)  Honestly, I’m inclined to agree (some of you may not believe it), and I want Tephra to [...]

#32 Comment By Nephlm On July 13, 2010 @ 12:44 am

@Roxysteve – Taken out doesn’t mean dead. A character can be Taken out (unconscious, taken prisoner, fallen down a cliff or otherwise removed from the scene) without being dead.

Being taken out can be imposed on a character whether the player chooses it or not. For a character to be killed the player has to choose that outcome or the table has to see no other credible and honest result.

I can push harder because I don’t have to worry about accidentally killing a character and the disruption to the narrative that entails.

At the end of the last arc I had 3 of 5 character’s unconscious, if I was running another system they would have been dead. That would be fine for a final battle of the campaign, but the campaign wasn’t over and those character’s still had stories to explore that they were central to.

Stories involving the Mexican vampire nation, the Faerie Lady and Fort 51 would probably have been dropped because they would have lost their anchor. The major penalty wouldn’t have been to the dead characters or the their players. It would have been my story lines, which I’ve spent all this time building up.

I never felt death was an effective stick. Depending on how it is handled death has one of three effects. Either one asset is lost and new one gained of roughly equal power (new character) or a player sits around with nothing to do and no spotlight time as his body is carried around or his buddies go on important difficult quests to resurrect him or the cleric lays on hands (or whatever) and he is resurrected in a trivial manner, which just cheapens the concept of death. None of those outcomes seems very desirable to my game.

I’m the first to admit that my games are more cooperative than adversarial. Character’s are encouraged to have vices and handles so they can be credibly be manipulated into getting involved in trouble. Putting in the rules that I will not kill their characters without their agreeing it is the right thing to happen here is me extending my hand in trust to my players so they will do the same to me.

#33 Comment By Airk On July 13, 2010 @ 9:25 am

@zacharythefirst – I’m no comics expert here, but how many times has Batman actually died?

Or, perhaps, to look at it another way:

Superman lives, but earth is destroyed… or Batman dies. Which one is more tragic?

Failure needs to matter. And it can matter in all kinds of gruesome ways. (How would you like to be blinded for life?) Death is a cheap threat.

#34 Comment By Roxysteve On July 13, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

@Nephlm – I guess I’d have to watch a session to see how it worked to understand what you’re getting at. I don’t disagree with your reasoning (for your case, I’m not saying it extends into the general one in any way) I just don’t see how you can “push” anyone if they know the consequences are going to be relatively mild. Again, not arguing with you, just admitting my own shortfall when it comes to understanding.

#35 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 13, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

@Malty – That sounds fantastic! The more I hear about DFRPG, the more I like the sound of it.

@theEmrys – You guys seem to all be on the same page about expectations and play style, which is an excellent place to be. I dig it!

@TwoShedsJackson – I can see that, though less so in games where realism is regularly tossed out the window. I’d definitely enjoy knowing that, say, my Twilight:2000 character could bite it any time — that seems totally appropriate to the setting. But in D&D? Not so much, at least for me.

@dizman – Good point! This is part of what I love about one-shots: Killing PCs (and, as a player, having my PC bite it).

@Matthew J. Neagley – Like what? This sounds like a very cool mechanic.

@Eric Wilde – Ooooooh, Pendragon — there’s a game where PC death is built right into its soul! Hmmm. Great example of matching mechanics to group expectations to the needs of the game in question!

@ChrowX – But it sounds like you DID take death off the table: You offered the PC clear options to avoid being killed, and the player in question understood that and made a conscious choice to keep death in the mix. That’s exactly what I’m getting at with this article. ;-)

@zacharythefirst – It’s funny you should mention the “one roll decides your fate” situation, because that’s come up in my group. The game was D&D 3.5, and it wasn’t the player’s or his PC’s fault, but his character’s fate came down to a single die roll, which he made.

On the one hand, drama. But on the other hand, holy frustration for him — and likely for the other players — if he hadn’t made it.

@Patrick Benson – Man, that sounds like a hard line to walk! Do you ever have players disagree with your assessment of whether their PC is main cast or side cast? And isn’t it safer to treat all PCs as main cast?

@Nephlm – Yep, I totally missed that — and it’s a fantastic point, about saving effort and avoiding wrecking a big, emotional story with a stray die roll.

@GiacomoArt – “Just please give Death some dignity and respect if you’re going to bring it to the table, and don’t turn it into some quarter-eating video game.” Amen, brother.

@Sudain – To play devil’s advocate: Even if you know you can push the Button of Doom without fear of dying, a) Would your character do that? and b) Wouldn’t the fear of non-death consequences stay your hand?

#36 Comment By Sudain On July 13, 2010 @ 11:47 pm

@Martin Ralya

Sadly – no. My group is specially (dis)functional this way. Instead of doing the heroic thing like the barbarian and bard want to (stopping the half-dragon/half-deamon from ascending to god-hood), we end up selling the wizard’s soul, sacrificing the local innocents to keep the cleric on good enough terms so she’ll heal us, and hiring assassins to kill the main tank(he wasn’t aware what the money in the pool was for) in order to find a competent assassin to learn their art(me). Buttons of Doom actually seem a nice convenient way of putting someone out of my(her) misery. :)

In other cases where the group isn’t nearly so “We’d destroy each other if there wasn’t the big nasty that would destroy us”, you are right. But even if the character wouldn’t throw themselves headlong into danger it still disinterests me if success and thereby power is a a foregone conclusion.

Non-death consequences? I’m more afraid of them finding me if I behave. :/ Last dm made my barbarian literate after I behaved and didn’t rush eat the magical books. (Suffice to say a “RAGGGHHHH! Smash!” character shouldn’t need literacy to do his job, and the DM disagreed) >.<

#37 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 14, 2010 @ 10:52 am

@Martin Ralya – It isn’t a hard line to walk at all. The players still get equal face time in the game.

But if your character is taking stupid risks for the purpose of amusing you the player, and not for the purpose of making the game fun for the group, I as the GM am going to be more inclined to have the bad guys kill that character instead of capturing the PC. Main cast members get captured and are rarely killed, supporting cast members get killed.

I’ve never had a player complain about it. It just seems to be a natural process. “Your thief who wants to steal the princess’s panties as a joke failed that stealth check? Okay, the guards come in with swords and attack. And the guards stab you one last time and kill you. Now let’s get back to the rest of the party who has been patiently waiting to begin the quest…”

I can see someone saying “But that’s unfair. You are punishing a certain style of play with tougher consequences in the story.” And I would agree with everything but the unfair part. I am punishing a certain style of play through the story, and when your style of play is to go against the story such a conflict should take place. Your PC might roll well and escape the guards (or kill them, or fool them, etc.). The rules haven’t changed, but the NPCs actions are going to be much more harsh.

On the other hand, if your thief is trying to steal the princess’s journal in order to learn what she knows about the BBEG’s plans your PC is more likely to be captured.

None of these things may have been part of the plot that I had in mind for the game, but one is just a self-indulgent subplot for a player while the other is an attempt by the player to interact with the story. I as the GM serve the group, and as such I will use opportunities to remove a troublemaker PC from the game in a fair manner.

It works for me, but YMMV.

#38 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 14, 2010 @ 10:56 am

Unfortunately WordPress modified one part of my comment above:

“Your thief who wants to steal the princess’s panties as a joke failed that stealth check? Okay, the guards come in with swords and attack.”

There would be several rounds of combat here.

“And the guards stab you one last time and kill you. Now let’s get back to the rest of the party who has been patiently waiting to begin the quest…”

I would not have the NPCs just kill the PC through fiat. There would be combat according to the game’s rules.

#39 Comment By BishopOfBattle On July 14, 2010 @ 11:12 am

When I first started GMing, I found I fudged fairly often when it came to player death. In trying to build a game story arc about the party, I felt that killing the players off would negatively impact that story. As a result, the players often won out where the dice would not have agreed so.

A few sessions though, I let them get a little more banged up and their enjoyment seemed to go up. I still feel that killing off players would be a detriment to the enjoyment of the story, but I find I fudge far less these days when it comes to combat.

I still would rule towards keeping players alive in most situations, however. Instead of the player being shot and dying outright, they fall unconcious and are knocked out of the fight. The rest of the team can still win the day and come rescue him. Very similar to systems in games like Dragon Age where party members can be knocked out and then be revived after the fight.

In order to ensure there are penalties for failure still (since I tend to keep death off the table except in extreme situations) I prefer to make the consequences impact other parts of the game world the players are attached to as mentioned in the James Bond article above. ie: The players are trying to save a girl one of the players grew up with, due to poor planning coupled with poor rolls they were unable to save her and the terrorists exploded the bomb destroying the facility she was in and killing her. The players are banged up but survive, and must now deal with the guilt of not saving her, the possible fallout from mutual friends and family, possible legal trouble which may get linked to them from her death, etc… and they don’t get paid / recieve the phat lewt for successfully rescuing her.

#40 Comment By BryanB On July 15, 2010 @ 10:49 am

To be blunt, I will grow bored with a campaign in which the characters have no chance to fail or especially to risk character death.

In a recent series of D&D 4e games, my Fighter was killed on two occasions. The GM made it too easy, in my opinion, to obtain a resurrection ritual. This seemed to cheapen my character’s death because there was no real chance that he wasn’t going to return to the series. Why kill the PC if they are just going to return to the game the next day?

I would feel much better about losing a PC and having that death mean something than to keep reviving the same PC by reducing death down to a minor inconvenience. Would Boromir’s death in LotR have been as meaningful if he would have been resurrected in time for The Two Towers? I think not.

I’m not opposed to character resurrection in all cases, but it feels more authentic at the more epic levels of a campaign. And how many resurrections should a character have before the Gods become displeased with a Cleric delaying fate’s bounty?

Sometimes, a PC needs to go out a hero. A new PC can be created. It isn’t the end of the world to lose a PC. Sometimes it feels like the younger generation of gamers has lost that aspect of gaming. If I know my PC will never truly risk death, then the game just loses a lot of appeal for me.

#41 Comment By Scott Martin On July 15, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

@BryanB – It’s that line that I have trouble with: meaningful death is good, trivial resurrection is bad. If you’re just going to raise the PC anyway, why not call it “comatose”– at least waking up from a coma is something that doesn’t require resurrection magic.

Honestly, even “broken arm” in a world without healing magic takes the character out for a long while– how effectively could you fight with an improperly set arm? When the opponent can just bump your arm to cause terrible agony and you’re forced to fight offhand anyway? That’s not death, but it’s a loss condition equivalent to removing the PC for weeks– which is all resurrection boils down to, much of the time. [Also, the player can roleplay working around their inability to contribute. If you want to make it trivial, you can always break out healing magic, just like resurrection magic.]

#42 Comment By LordVreeg On July 15, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

(Can’t believe I missed this topic…am I on drugs?)

I believe in PC death. And by my experience, it matters.

First off, in terms of the story, players kill monsters all the time. If death only works in one direction, it trivializes death and the game. Yes, I just said a game where monsters die and players don’t is more trivial than one where the efects of combat are internally congruent.

Secondly, the tenor of the game you want to have needs to match the risks. A light-hearted, comicbook-esque game does not need death. Anything remotely gritty needs death.

And fudging? I’m pretty Old School for that. I play with adults, risks have rewards or consequences. I will bend a roll or so every 5-6 sessions, but the law of risk and achievement is important. My players feel like they have achieved something if their PCs survive a few years (my 2 current campaigns are 16 and 8 years old). If their is no risk of death, their is little real campaign-level achievement.

#43 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 15, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

@Patrick Benson – Aha! With equal face time, that now sounds more like Buffy, with its Slayer and White Hats.

@LordVreeg – I’d love to try a self-consciously old-school campaign like yours — I don’t know that I’ve ever played a game like that for long.

#44 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-07-16 — Double Stacked Edition! On July 16, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

[...] Hot Button: Player Characters Should Never Be Killed Bah. PCs should die and die lots… ok… Maybe not “lots,” but the threat of death should be ever present. There should be no holds barred on killing people that do stupid things, run into overly dangerous situations or that just have a long string of bad luck that offs them. That’s my two cents on the matter. It looks like Martin over at Gnome Stew disagrees with me quite a bit… or does he? [...]

#45 Comment By LordVreeg On July 17, 2010 @ 10:38 am

@Martin Ralya
I sure never planned this setting to be OldSchool, or long term. My current game was the 7th setting I made…It’s just stuck for 26 years.
I’ve only been aware that it has an ‘OldSchool’ feel over the last few years, you know? It wasn’t self conscious until then. But it is accurate.

#46 Comment By Rafe On July 20, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

I think you make valid arguments for not having PC deaths, Martin, but I’m not convinced they’re sound.

Players have to believe their characters can die, period. Whether they ever do is up to the GM, I suppose, and circumstances in the game, but if they don’t think there’s even a possibility, players take extreme liberties. I’ve never seen an exception to that.

#47 Comment By Stoneghost On July 20, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

I employ an injury system, of which death is a part, for instances where players would otherwise die by the rules. I eliminate all healing and resurrection magic in my campaign. I change hit points to be a model of fatigue, the concept being you expend fatigue to avoid suffering a physical or magical hit. I play 4E D&D and this is what hit points are described as, but a lot of people still think of a damaging attack as inflicting physical damage. I change the terminology to help enforce this fatigue concept. Healing spells now restore fatigue, but can’t repair physical or psychological injuries. When a creature cannot expend fatigue any more fatigue (0 hit points) they suffer a physical or magical hit that incapacitates them. An attack that lands can could range anywhere from a superficial wound to a hit that instantly kills someone. For monsters I don’t really care and I ignore it in combat. For players things are a bit different.

What happens next depends a lot on your game system, and probably requires some meta-gaming. Here is what I do in 4e. The player rolls “death” saves as normal. If for whatever reason the player is able to regain fatigue (hit points) and get themselves back on their feet the physical hit that incapacitated them is viewed as a glancing blow.

If however the player fails these saving throws, or is reduced by whatever means to his or her negative fatigued (bloodied) value, the player now has an injury. Using a table I roll to see the severity (mild, moderate, severe, death) and location (head, torso, right arm etc…) of the hit they suffered. The table favors mild injuries. Based on what they were hit by (a fireball versus a sword), where they were hit, and severity of the injury I apply penalties for a given period of time in game. These can last a few days in game to permanency, assuming the hit didn’t kill them. 4e has status effects, so I use those in addition to non-mechanical description of injuries. I try to systematically apply the number of penalties, and how long they last for the severity of the injury.

Examples:
“The minotaur’s charge attack that incapacitated you caused you to roll out your ankle and sprain. You are slowed for 5 days and after that your speed is reduced by 2 for two weeks.”

“The necromancer’s psionic attack that incapacitated you has left you dazed and confused. You are weakened for two weeks and you can’t cast rituals or do other actions that require focus for a month. Your maximum number of surges is reduced by 3, you recover one per month. Even years from now you might have a moment of inattention, or a nightmare of this event.”

“The knight’s mace that incapacitated you shattered your face: your jaw is fractured, your right eye is destroyed and you have a moderate concussion. You cannot be moved for one day, you are incapacitated for 2 weeks. You are dazed for a month. You cannot speak for 3 months. You have a -2 attack penalty for 3 months, and -1 for 3 months after that, as you learn to live with one eye. The number of surges you have is reduced by 6, you recover one each month. You are permanently blind in your right eye, your face will never look normal again, and you will be plagued with migraines for the rest of your life, assuming you survive the next few days [heal check!].”

“The dragon’s fire breath that… well, let’s just say it won’t be an open casket funeral.”

#48 Comment By Wesley Street On July 21, 2010 @ 8:01 am

Without death, would life be as sweet? Would a PC cherish every moment of his existence and live them to the fullest if he knew his GM would just pull his punches at the end and let him off with a “penalty”?

Let’s look at the points made:

a) “Infrequent.” Well, yes, death should be infrequent. If PCs are dropping like flies there’s something inherently wrong with the game. A game of guaranteed success or failure isn’t a game worth playing.

b) “Penalizes players.” Not really. One of the biggest problems in RPGs is that often actions are not countered with consequences. Sure, you occasionally have a run of bad luck with the dice and your warlock is consumed by dragon fire. However, the question to ask is, how did that warlock get into that position in the first place? Was he ready to be there? Did he rush into that situation without thinking it through… or was the GM being cruel? Neither of these situations are acceptable. If a player is temporarily out of the game he can always pick up the part of an NPC or assist the GM until his new PC can be brought in at a thematically appropriate story point.

c) “Can emotionally impact players.” Uh… it’s just a game? :P But seriously, I typically have multiple character concepts rattling around in the back of my head. If my PC dies, I have another waiting on the bench to pull up and insert at the appropriate time. I think most other gamers are of the same mindset.

d)”Often avoided by GMs”. Not me, man. Not me. I do not pull my punches and my players get angry when I do. I get angry emails when I run out of time and have to close up an encounter before it’s properly resolved.

e)”Generally just an inconvenience.” With a little forethought and prep-work it really isn’t. Again, have ideas for multiple characters if you’re a player and if you’re a GM, put some forethought into good spots in an adventure where new PCs can be introduced.

f)”Why should it ever happen without the affected player’s consent?” This is a shared experience amongst players and GMs, yes? If I as a GM spend three hours setting up an encounter and my players blast through it in two minutes (frustrating for any GM) I still have to consent to my players’ success. Do the players not have to consent to their own in-game failures? How is that fair or satisfying for anyone?

#49 Comment By OldSchoolfool2 On July 25, 2010 @ 10:39 pm

Should I get out the wet blanket & box of tissues? Man, what is happening here, are we so afraid to hurt some one’s feeling here, harden the heck up people. Its a game you roll bad or do some thing dumb you will die. Your hand rolled the die?

Sure, I under DMs in the past just going out and killing players for the sheer fun, won’t be the first or the last time. Cruel but hay its life.

Most of the real world people playing are just happy to pry said players away from their consoles or WOW long enough to sit at the round table for a few sessions.

I find as long as to make your players aware this is how “we play” then it should be fine and dandy.

#50 Pingback By Mr. Topp and the Big Bad Blog » Death and consequence On July 29, 2010 @ 11:56 am

[...] few weeks ago, I read a Gnome Stew article in which player character death was called a “hot button issue”. It puts the argument out there that PCs should not die in game — in books and movies, we [...]

#51 Comment By Squeejee On December 12, 2010 @ 5:19 am

As a player, I find knowing that I can’t die cheapens the experience. As a GM, I find that treating my players with kid gloves – except for when they’re learning a new system – leads to them not being as engaged in the game.

True, character death can lead to the derailment of an entire session, but that is usually the fault of the player whose character has fallen. Being certain your players understand that you will not grant them unlimited lives can avoid this situation, and having a cast of backup characters floating around the game world can bring a fallen player back into the game very quickly. In a previous game, the backup characters were basically a crew of cohorts.

If you’re having trouble dealing with the thought of your current character dying, try looking at it from a different perspective: your old character isn’t ending, your next character is starting. You have been given the opportunity to try something new, to shake up the status quo of your party and perhaps offer a whole new perspective on the campaign. Relish it.


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